Is Dry Needling Like Acupuncture?

Acupuncture and dry needling can use the same, thin filiform needle. However, the mechanism for what each is used for differs. In this blog article, we will explore the differences between trigger point dry needling (TPDN) and acupuncture.

Have you ever felt a knot-like band in a muscle? Perhaps an aching pain coming from a particular spot on a muscle that is reproduced when pressure is applied? This may be known as a trigger point defined by Dr. Joseph E. Muscolino as a “focal area of hyperirritability that is sensitive to pressure and can refer symptoms to other areas of the body." Trigger points can create a sensation of pain or tension which is integrated through our nervous system. These trigger points can be addressed through manual releases such as soft tissue mobilizations and massage. However throughout years of research on this topic, dry needling has provided an intramuscular means to access the offending areas contributing to myofascial pain. It is termed “dry” because there is no injection of material into the muscle. It’s primary use as an intervention is to manage myofascial pain, improve range of motion restrictions across a joint, and muscle activation.

Meanwhile, acupuncture is based upon a traditional Chinese medicine approach using meridian points to most commonly treat pain. It can also be indicated in managing stress, conditions stimulating nausea, and fertility. This intervention can help balance the energy flow, known as chi or qi (pronounced ‘chee’), within one’s body once assessed by an acupuncturist. The benefits of acupuncture can be hard to measure, but because it has few side effects similar to dry needling, it can be worth trying if conventional methods of pain control have been futile.

TPDN is indicated in the treatment of:

  • Headaches
  • Hip-related pain
  • Jaw/TMJ pain
  • Knee-related pain
  • Low back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Shoulder/trapezius pain

TPDN is just one part of the treatment process that can facilitate the healing and recovery process. In the state of Georgia, it is required to have a script from a physician before beginning this particular intervention with your physical therapist. However, a regular evaluation and treatment by a Doctor of Physical Therapy can be done without a script for 21 days or 8 visits whichever comes first. From there you and our physical therapist will develop a plan of care that will best serve your needs.


The Muscle and Bone Palpation Manual with trigger points, referral patterns and stretching by Joseph E. Muscolino

American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (

Photos are courtesy of Stephanie Gold Photography

Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this article are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.

Dr. Krystal Sterling

Physical Therapist | Doctor of Physical Therapy
Krystal Sterling is a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) specializing in orthopedic conditions with an integrative sports medicine approach. She works at Activcore in Atlanta, Georgia, located just 2 miles from Emory University.
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